This past week, I attempted undergoing some serious changes in my social life. I (mostly) gave up social media, and (somewhat) traded in my $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro for a $20 Nokia Flip from Walmart. I wanted to take this leap because I’ve been feeling isolated from my thoughts and the real world lately. Spending hours every day sucked into my screen and wishing I could be a part of everyone else’s Instagram highlight reel or have the success of my favorite artists online has led to feelings of depression and anxiety over time. More often than I’d like to admit, I waste time on social media and my phone as a way of procrastinating work, and that low productivity leaves me feeling like an addicted failure.
I began doing some research only to find that I’m not alone; my experience is so prevalent that University of Pennsylvania did a study on it in 2018. The study found that undergraduates who limited all their social media usage to 10 minutes per day showed a huge reduction in depression and loneliness compared to those who continued using social media like normal. These statistics reassured me that this toxic cycle is one I had to take control of, so I don’t look back one day and realize I missed taking in the reality around me and replaced my memories with those of strangers online.
The flip phone ended up costing more than I bargained for. To get my Nokia to make calls and send texts, I had to buy a Tracfone plan. Initially, I purchased the 30-day plan for another $20, which I thought allotted for 60 minutes of call time. That will be plenty, I thought to myself. I hardly talk for an hour on the phone in a week.
I arrived back at my apartment, holding hands with a grey plastic grocery bag containing the secret to a newfound mindfulness and limited freedom. For being as simple a phone as it was, the device was rather tricky to set up. It took about an hour to read through its multiple direction pamphlets, insert the battery and back casing myself, call and activate it by typing in several codes and numbers, power it off and on a few times, and finally learn how to navigate its buttons and screen. About 20 minutes of this hour were spent using my bling machine to make the bulky grey block look cute and trendy.
The exquisite rainbow gems that I bedazzled my new flip phone with were not enough to make me prefer the gadget over my sleek iPhone. If anything, the mesmerizing, sparkly gems were one of the only things that excited me about my technological change, besides the fact that I had a new shiny toy to play with, show off, and loudly snap shut like a diva. In fact, I wanted my friends to call me just so I could loudly announce my goodbyes and slap it shut! It took a while to get a hang of the snapping, as I had to navigate how to swiftly close the phone without getting my fingers caught inside of it. Ugh. This would come so much more naturally if I were a true diva.
One of the hardest learning curves I encountered on this journey was texting using a limited number of keys. I soon found myself gravitating towards phone calls instead, which I usually cannot stand. Because my everyday schedule is so differing and busy, it’s hard to carve an hour out of my day to sit down and devote my attention to a phone call. Most of the time I end up playing phone tag with the other person for a while, calling each other back and forth three times only to find we’re busy. I prefer texting someone when I’m available and knowing they’ll respond when it’s convenient.
I chose to ignore all of my qualms with phone calls to avoid taking five minutes to type out a text on my mini keyboard. This made me realize that talking on the phone really can be positive and beneficial; it was nice hearing my family and friends’ voices and not having to stretch a usually shorter and more superficial conversation over hours if the other person forgets to respond. However, I found that I would have to transfer the call to my iPhone mid-conversation to save minutes—and therefore money—on my flip. I admit…I was not completely prone to cheating during this project; I tried my best not to break my bank. Each keyboard button contained 3 to 4 letters, meaning I had to tap the keyboard 8 times just to send the word “Hi.” I’m sure you can imagine how much time a singular sentence would take to craft. I found myself using numbers for words, like ‘2’ instead of ‘to,’ or a ‘0’ instead of an ‘o’ just to save 3 to 5 clicks on the keyboard. It was even harder to type on than my fifth grade Blackberry, which had a full, but very tiny, keyboard.
My family and friends laughed at my hyper-abbreviated texts, not to mention the feared ugly-shade-of-green texting bubbles that have become a meme in our current culture. “I feel like I’m back in middle school,” my roommate replied to my green text bubble. Me too, I thought. I remember envying my mom’s hot pink Motorola flip phone back then, sneaking into her bedroom to make pretend phone calls and furiously text my imaginary friends. And, lest we forget, practice my snap motion to make me the diva I am today. “So no more long text messages telling me how you feel?” my boyfriend joked, knowing our usual form of communication throughout the day would now be very stunted. My friends were also extremely surprised when I used emojis, not thinking my amateur device could handle such a current concept. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised, too.
Along with emojis, my flip phone had Google, Google Maps, games, a flashlight, weather app, and camera that I used to take a cute screensaver picture of the flowers in my room. The game apps I downloaded on the very limited app store included an amateur snake game, a cheesy cat-telling-jokes game, and a magician dog guessing what card we were thinking of. Me and my roommate were cackling when the dog always guessed right, thinking he was magical until we deduced his trick. It really did feel like being back in middle school, clicking away at funny games on my Nintendo DS.
My other friends laughed when they saw I had a flip phone to begin with. The initial question was always, “Did you break your phone?” to which I immediately defended myself with “It’s for a class social experiment.” I brought it to my a cappella choir rehearsal and was met with stares and laughs from my peers. “This is so on brand for you,” they laughed, as I am usually the comedian of our group. I realized I usually look at the sheet music on my iPhone during rehearsal and was in trouble because I now had to remember the music by memory. Just another setback of not having a smartphone.
I was embarrassed to use my Nokia around strangers on campus. This boils down to my superficial wish to fit in and be accepted by those around me. What does it say about my social status if I don’t have an iPhone? I thought. Android users are looked down upon and made fun of, let alone Nokia flip phone users. I felt guilty for caring about the opinions of strangers around me, which is ironic because I cater my Instagram feed to people I don’t truly know all the time.
I only transferred 10 close contacts to the flip phone because it would have been too difficult to update more people on my new phone number and situation for the week. However, this made me worried that I was missing out on important messages from other people that hadn’t been filled in on the experiment. The few people I had filled in even struggled to remember where they should get ahold of me.
This experiment made me realize just how reliant I am on my convenient iPhone. I had not even recognized that it had become like another limb on my body. I needed it for everything: better navigating directions, song lyrics while performing onstage, taking quality pictures, group messaging, facetiming, Spotify, GroupMe, receiving post-grad networking calls I had scheduled throughout the week. I couldn’t even stream my favorite music in the car! Coming to terms with my addiction made me feel like a failure, as many other phone junkies express. Technology expert Trevor Wheelwright recently documented a 2022 study taken by 1,000 American adults on reviews.org, highlighting that 47% of Americans claim an addiction to their cell phones, 74% of Americans “feel uneasy leaving their phone at home,” and the average American spends around 3 hours on their phone a day—which is nearly 44 full days in a year.
How much is this phone usage genuinely affecting us? Many researchers have studied the effects cell phones have on our social awkwardness and how communicating through text is emotionally stunting younger generations—specifically their face-to-face communication skills. An article released by Penn State in 2015 explores a study done by Professor Dr. Tamyra Pierce, examining 280 high school students on their social media accounts, phone usage patterns, and comfort level with face-to-face situations. Pierce found a strong “correlation between social anxiety of face-to-face interaction which increases with the amount of online interaction one participates in.” The article also mentions that avoiding uncomfortable situations through texting is detrimental to our generation, as young people cannot grow through confronting others about intimately important things. My friends and I have all felt the effects of lacking human interactions and social development when trying to meet new people or find a romantic partner through online dating. “Men are so ballsy on text, but when you meet them in person, they are completely different people and barely say hello. They don’t know how to flirt,” my friend said. The more our interactions take place online, the harder it will be for us to communicate in person.
I often brought my iPhone along with my flip phone to classes this week as a backup because I was anxious about missing messages and thought my unfamiliar device would be too slow or fail to work the way I needed it to. I also had networking phone calls I was waiting on, so I couldn’t exactly call up future potential employers and tell them, “Hey, I’m going off the grid for a week. Here’s my new limited-time-only phone number; if you decide to call you’ve got 10 minutes. Thanks!”
A few days into the week, I was glad I had my backup iPhone in my backpack, because my flip phone stopped working and wouldn’t let me send texts or make calls anymore. Then, it hit me. The 60 minutes promised to me weren’t just for phone calls—which I had already been nervously transferring to my iPhone after 15 minutes of a flip conversation—it was 60 minutes of using the flip phone total. ONE HOUR WAS SUPPOSED TO LAST ME 30 DAYS?! I thought to myself. This sketchy burner phone is definitely just supposed to be used for drug deals.
After my texts stopped sending, I drove back to Walmart and spent $30 dollars on a 120-minute Tracfone plan this time. So far, I’ve got about $75 riding on this bulky P.O.S. But hey, I’ll do anything for science. And social anxiety.
Being as I still kept my iPhone around for other essential functions, it took so much willpower to not nervously scroll away on my fun addictive apps. I texted my friends, “UGH! All I want to do is lay in my bed and be a TikTok junkie right now but I can’t! *crying emoji*” I was like an addict going through withdrawals, and this feeling honestly scared me. Before my flip phone, I would instantly gravitate towards social media when I finally got some free time to lounge in my room. The scrolling and instant gratification would shut off my anxious thoughts about my schoolwork, relationships, work, future…everything. Now I had to find something more productive to do with my wasted time.
A couple days into my experiment, I let my old habits provide me with comfort and endorphins again; I found myself accidentally cheating on the no social media rule—the reason I wanted to do this experiment in the first place. I opened my Instagram DMs and Snapchat messages, only to get distracted and scroll through a couple posts. It felt like I was lost in my own little fantasy world again—or, more accurately, other peoples’ made-up fantasy worlds. Luckily, I would remember my goal and close out the app after a couple minutes, but after this happened a couple more times, I knew I had to crack down and stop making excuses. This social media detox was slowly opening my eyes to how much I relied on the apps for entertainment during my free time or to numb my surroundings. I deleted the apps, set time limits on my messaging apps, and found that my screen time went down 55% this week, from 4.5 hours to a bit over 2 hours! I was ecstatic. I felt like I was finally taking my life back, becoming more mindful and still on campus, wasting less time scrolling through social media, and realizing how much phone addiction plagues those around me with their eyes glued to their phones.
In the book Silence In the Age of Noise, by Erling Kagge, the author writes, “We live in the age of noise. Silence is almost extinct” (Kagge 41). He recognized that it is too easy to avoid being present in our own lives as we busy ourselves with sending text messages, playing music, or allowing our thoughts to rapidly ‘flit about,’ “rather than holding still and shutting out the world for a single moment” (Kagge 17). Kagge boils all of this down to our cowardly ‘fear of getting to know ourselves better.’ I agree with this view. As philosopher Blaise Pascal claimed in the 1600s, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I recognize that much of my issue of being without my phone is related to the discomfort I feel sitting alone with my thoughts. I drown them out in other people’s highlight reels on social media and watch quick funny TikTok videos that make me forget about what I must do and where I should presently be.
Kagge also wrote about studies done by universities of Virginia and Harvard. Scientists ran an experiment in which they left individuals alone in a room with no distractions—just their thoughts—for 15 minutes. Most reported being uncomfortable and unable to concentrate on the stillness, similar to meditation. Scientists then ran the same experiment again, but this time offered the participants the chance to receive a painful electrical shock to reduce their silent time. Researchers claimed that “being alone with one’s own thoughts for fifteen minutes ‘was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid’” (Kagge 47). I spent time this week learning how to meditate instead of using my phone and will admit that, although these results were flabbergasting to read about, I could understand where the participants are coming from. Even just 5 minutes of meditating and focusing on being still was extremely difficult for me. I found my thoughts continuously spiraling about what I had to get done or whose messages I was missing, and I hated it. I didn’t want to be a slave to my smartphone anymore.
Although I won’t be continuing my flip phone journey like I thought I’d want to by the end of this week, I am still so grateful for how much it made me appreciate the world around me again instead of being glued to the endless world of possibilities on my iPhone. It opened my eyes to my social media and phone addiction, and I will continue challenging myself with limiting my time wasted onscreen. I encourage everyone to take a trip to Walmart, bedazzle a $20 Nokia Flip, and let its limits guide you through a mindfulness not often found in smartphone users today. I felt less isolated tuning into my surroundings and noticed my depressed and anxious thoughts begin to dissipate as I spent more time getting comfortable with my thoughts and less time tuning into strangers’ lives online.
I eventually redownloaded social media after this experiment to see if I had missed any messages, and while scrolling through my stories, I had a profound moment of wondering why I had ever cared to see what everyone else was doing with their lives when I was supposed to be living mine. The colors and tricks of my iPhone seem much duller.